‘It’s Bobsled Time!’ A Q&A with Devon Harris
The Jamaican national bobsled team was formed in 1987 and took the world by surprise at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada, where a promising run ended in a crash but nonetheless won the four-man squad widespread acclaim.
Popularized in the 1993 film “Cool Runnings,” the team has continued to compete on the world stage, including at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Devon Harris, one of the team’s original members who also competed in the 1992 and 1998 Olympics before retiring from the sport, recently traveled to Albany to push for legislation that would help secure funding for the team.
Harris, who is now a motivational speaker and author, spoke with City & State Senior Correspondent Jon Lentz about training at Lake Placid, living in New York and helping schoolchildren back in Jamaica.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: You were in Albany this year to meet with state lawmakers. Why?
Devon Harris: We came there to ask the lawmakers to authorize a special Jamaican bobsled team license plate. Jamaica bobsledding actually has a really long history with New York State. This is the first state and the first bobsled track we ever visited when our team got formed back in 1987. Ever since we have been coming to Lake Placid, what we would call our home track. Actually, there are three former members of the team, two of the original members and one of the guys from the 1992 team, who have lived in New York State now for more than 20 years. There’s been a long history.
C&S: So Lake Placid was your first time on ice?
DH: When we got to Lake Placid, it was too early to be on the track. It was in September of 1987. But the first time I pushed a bobsled was in Lake Placid. It was on the ice rink training with the U.S. team at the time.
C&S: And you live in New York now.
DH: Yes. I’ve been living here since December 1992.
C&S: How did you end up here?
DH: My time in the army came to an end in 1992, and I thought I should move to the U.S. My parents at the time lived and still live in New Jersey, and I was looking for other options. I just kind of chose New York. It was close to Jamaica, a four-and-a-half-hour flight. There’s a large Jamaican population here in New York. I started studying hospitality management at New York Tech in Brooklyn. My parents lived nearby, but I didn’t want to live in Jersey.
C&S: The proposed Jamaican bobsled team license plates in New York would help fund the current team, right?
DH: Yes, that’s the goal. We created the Jamaica Bobsled Foundation. The idea is to create this Jamaica bobsled team license plate that would eventually create a funding stream for the current team.
C&S: So you’re still helping out the team?
DH: Yes. My role with the federation now is what we call a secretary general, so I’m responsible for developing and finding funding for our program.
C&S: How good is the team now? How talented?
DH: Talented, yes. Jamaica still has talented athletes. But they are brand new, novice bobsledders. This past season was their very first season on ice, so they had a chance to learn the sport and now we’re looking to gather funding so we can get them going next season.
C&S: “Cool Runnings” popularized the team. What did you think of the film?
DH: I thought it was a good human-interest story. They did a good job in depicting the spirit of the team and fighting to overcome. Of course, they took a lot of liberties with many of the facts, but they got the spirit of the time right. The movie had so many powerful life lessons that all of us can apply to our lives.
C&S: How did Jamaica actually start a bobsled team?
DH: Back in 1987, two Americans who lived in Jamaica at the time saw a pushcart, that wooden cart that Sanka Coffie was racing in the movie. We actually do do that in Jamaica. In bobsledding, a big part of the race is the start, so you need sprinters, and of course we have tons of sprinters. But the guys on the summer team didn’t want to do it. So they came to the army and they came to ask me. At the time I was a young lieutenant, and my colonel “suggested” that I try out for the team. I had Olympic aspirations back then as a middle-distance runner. So this seemed like a good opportunity to fulfill a dream of mine, which was represent my country at the Olympic Games.
C&S: So there’s a parallel there with the movie, since several of the fictional characters were sprinters.
DH: I was a middle-distance runner. The movie was all about the sprinters. It paid homage to the fact that Jamaica produces so many great international sprinters, and you can convert a sprinter into an Olympic bobsledder.
C&S: You also founded the Keep on Pushing Foundation. What does it do, and how is it going?
DH: I’m from one of the rougher neighborhoods in Kingston, so my foundation started with work at my old elementary school providing a breakfast program and school supplies in that school and then in several other schools in the neighborhood. We have been getting good results in terms of attendance, punctuality, test scores, general improvement in students’ performance. So I’m encouraged.